Thursday, May 10, 2012

A fundamental desire to tell over the contents of what may (but may also not) be told

Narrative digression, perhaps because of its very association with wandering off-topic, going astray, loitering around, failing to get to the point and beating around the bush (or um den heißen Brei herumreden, as we learn from reading Samuel Frederick on the writings of Robert Walser -- 'to talk around the porridge'), actually seems to be a highly contested literary concept. In Textual Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression, the last of the contributors to this book of excursions, Christine Angela Knoop, even asks whether this narrative feature is a viable concept for literary studies at all.

J. J. Long, in his introduction to Textual Wanderings, cites Susan Sontag's conclusion to her essay 'Against Interpretation' (1964) -- where she states that in 'place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art' -- as the call that prompted a shift in the discourse of narratology, after which narratives came to be read in terms of desire. He then goes on to describe what appears to have been a reappraissal of the dynamics of plot through the smeared lens of a Freudian, phallo-centric notion of desire, and lists Roland Barthes's S/Z (1970), Ross Chamber's Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (1984) and Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1984) as key texts in furthering the steam. While J. J. Long himself is alert to the possibilities and intricacies of digression -- and has written extensively, for example, on the work of such writers as W. G. Sebald and Thomas Bernhard -- he seems to hold very closely to the Brooksian idea of narrative, where digression is a means for prolonging the pleasurable anticipation of a consummation of desire at the end of a narrative. He maintains that even Sebald's digressive writing in The Rings of Saturn, which tries to resist this end impulse, as he argues, is finally unable to detach itself from its exigencies, as the narrator's walk comes to an end, the narrative ends, and even the last word in the German text is Heimat, or 'home' and as such finds its comfortable end; in other words, digressivity, as he writes, 'can never fully detach itself from teleology'. It might try but it will always fail.

I can imagine that the first contributor to Textural Wanderings would very likely have wanted to challenge J. J. Long on this point. In his essay 'Re-reading Digression: Towards a Theory of Plotless Narrativity', Samuel Frederick rearticulates what J. J. Long had described as digression's resistance to plot, but goes on to question the validity of any assumption of plot as being identical to narrative, and therefore comprising its resistant core. He then, through a close reading of the proliferation of possible beginnings and refusal of endings in the work of the Swiss writer, Robert Walser, suggests that digression can actually become 'an alternative mode of narrative movement' to plot in radically digressive texts. Frederick concludes by identifying a different figuring of desire in narrative: 'a fundamental desire to tell over the contents of what may (but may also not) be told' [Frederick's emphasis].

In his 'Reflections on the Fruitful Error', Richard Hibbit, the next contributor, expands on an obsolete meaning of 'error' -- that is, an act of wandering, as derived from the Latin 'errare' (to wander) -- to explore chance and accident as intrinsic and positive components of the writing process as a whole. Quoting Naomi Leibowitz, he describes how Montaigne's ability to embrace what seem to be imperfections -- 'disease, defect, digression' -- is essential to any understanding of the achievement of his work. He even cites Nietzsche in attributing Goethe's strength as a writer to his 'digression through error': that is, Goethe's non-literary activities in the sciences and visual arts. Hibbit finishes his essay with an implicit loosening of J. J. Long's end-tied reading of Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as 'an archetypal digressive text: a text about digressions which was created by a digression, or a text about error as wandering which was created by error as mistake'.

The third contributor, Jena Habegger-Conti, unfurls John Bath's capacity for infinite story generation and infinite expansion in resistance to telos in ''On with the Story!' John Bath's Theory of Narrative Digression'. She argues that in Bath's works, 'digression is not only equated with the storytelling, it is the story' [Habegger-Conti's emphasis]. This kind of narrative -- obviously and explicitly aligned to the Scheherazadian model of infinitely postponing the end -- draws our attention to the slips and tucks that achieve this illusion: to the Mobius band, the arabesque and the Mandelbrot set, as well as to Lewis Richardson's study of the English coastline, where the shoreline could be said to be infinite in terms of the infinite possibility of increasing the degree of what is measurable in every cove, every rock, every grain of sand, its microscopic structure and so on -- an image which could not help but tug at the residue of Sebald's excursion along a section of the English coastline in The Rings of Saturn elsewhere in this volume, distorting it beautifully as perhaps it would wish to be distorted.

Olivia Santovetti's overview of four major digression-inclined Italian writers in 'Italian Digressions' points out that what is generally regarded as the founding Italian novel in the nineteenth century, Alessandro Manzoni's  I promessi sposi, came about through an embracing of the looser possibilities of the new form as opposed to the strict requirements of the classical genres then in vogue in Italy, which enabled him follow his two main interests of poetry and history in the one text. For Manzoni, Pirandello and Gadda, we read, digression is an enabling feature in their narratives. For Pirandello, digression -- at least in his first-person narratives -- works against a naturalist distortion of what he calls 'bare life', becoming a tool that humour could exercise in the procedure of 'scomposizione' or 'dissection'; for Gadda, digression attempts to represent the impossible 'groviglio' or  'tangle' of reality. Santovetti then describes how Italo Calvino, famously noted for his love of 'linear writing', came to be fascinated by the possibility of multiplicity in digression after an encounter with a giant Tule tree in Mexico in 1976, where he was prompted to wonder whether its 'chaotic wastage of matter and forms' was the one thing that enabled the tree to 'give itself a shape and maintain it', and that the 'transmission of meaning' might depend on this 'excess of manifestation'.

In Will McMorran's chapter, ''I've started so I'll -- ': Marivaux's La Vie de Marianne', McMorran describes Marivaux's characterisation of a female narrative voice in this incomplete novel as one that deviates from plot on account of its more conversational, socially-inclined, epistolary style, and messily feminine reluctance to keep to the central concerns of the plot. Throughout, McMorran argues that 'the very idea of digression indeed only arises within the context of a progressive narrative: the more driven a plot appears to be, the more pronounced any deviation from that plot becomes in the reader's imagination'. He is concerned to argue that the digressive aspects of the book are inextricably tied to the progress of the narrative -- a narrative, however, that never realises the expected telos of the revelation of the narrator's identity due to Marivaux's failing to complete the novel (just as he failed to complete Le Paysan Parvenu): the serialised installments of the piece simply coming to an apparently arbitrary end.

The sixth contributor, Maebh Long, in 'Stepping Away: Radical Digressivity and At Swim-Two-Birds', engages with the fact that some narratives, in comprising, as Maebh Long writes, 'non-originary fragmentation whereby digressions proliferate to the point of wholly dissolving any stable centre or core', and where the text 'will fail as a unit to begin definitively and conclude categorically', achieves a disruption of what Samuel Frederick in his earlier chapter calls the 'totalizing... whole' constructed by plot. Long points out a significant aspect of many narratives of this kind: that the narrator's life often enacts a 'mimesis' of the author's and, through a series of what she calls 'contaminated frames', the 'author becomes a point of radical digression, as he or she is written into the text and becomes fragmented into author-self and text-self, creator and created'.

This interest in the figuring of the author in the radically digressive text is further explored by Rhian Atkin, in 'Tell It Again, José! Some Principles of Digression in Saramago'. Here she examines the idiosyncratic use of punctuation in Saramago's texts, which enables him to blur the distinction between the discourse of the narrator and the other characters (a technique whose effect made me think of Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of 'dialogism'...). Atkin concludes that Ross Chamber's notion of 'supplementarity' is crucial to a reading of Saramago's narratives since each of them is often presented as only one of a number of possible manifestations of a story that the narrator is always inviting others to tell in another way ('contá-la doutra maniera').

In the final essay of Textual Wanderings, Christine Angela Knoop poses a question in the title of her piece: 'Is Digression a Viable Concept for Literary Studies?'. Primarily a critical engagement with Olivia Santovetti's book, Digression: A Narrative Strategy in the Italian Novel, Knoop examines what she calls the 'excursus', or 'a temporary abandonment of the plot' in an attempt to question the boundaries of such a distinction and asks whether the 'suggestion of textual hierarchy' in the assumption of the plot as the place from which the existence and function of digression can be determined is useful for 'literary texts at large'. Through a reading of Milan Kundera's work that is informed by his focus on thematic integrity, Knoop points out that 'a digression from theme is harder to imagine than a digression from plot' and asks: 'What could a text digress from if its message derives from its final form, including that which in other interpretations would be called digressive?'. The greatest difficulty I found with Knoop's argument was that, in acknowledging the interpretive issues in any discussion of theme in a narrative -- which, as she argues, will always change with the reader -- after she concludes that 'novelistic digression' is a 'necessary oxymoron' and that its possibility is tied to the transitory reading of a particular audience, she still declares it to be 'a parallel narrative strategy' even as she continues to argue that it is not 'a textual feature that can be clearly discerned prior to interpretation'. 

On the whole, I would say, Textural Wanderings: The Theory and Practice of Narrative Digression is an excellent introduction to the key lines of thinking in this wanderingly digressive field. The engagement is fresh (I could imagine the intensity of the tentative small talk over the thick china cups during the conference tea breaks at the University of Leeds in 2007, from which, as we are told in the Preface, the idea for this volume of essays arose). Occasionally, though, with all the discussion of telos and narrative and story and plot, it wasn't always clear in some of the essays how exactly 'story' could be distinguishable from either 'narrative' or 'plot'. While Samuel Frederick defines 'story' as 'the meaningful whole that plot constructs', for example, there must still be an essential inclusion of 'narrative' in this term as, at the end of his chapter, our minds are sent spinning when he declares that 'digression, in freeing narrative from plot's control, can participate in generating a new kind of narrative, that is, a necessarily nascent narrative mode which appears in the form of a beguiling, because seemingly impossible, storyless story' -- an image which is nonetheless completely entrancing, as is the thought of a universe that, within its own limitless existence, includes sites of unmaking that cannot be contained.


  1. Thanks for an interesting review of this book, which I, too, found to be a very stimulating read. I very much like your summary, and would agree on most counts. I will say that I do not quite share your points on the paper on Kundera. Knoop emphasizes that Kundera creates different plot levels, but that it's impossible to say which one is digressive and which one is the core plot. In so doing, she points out an important problem: we often define digression as a digression from the plot, but these digressions may be only formal, because they are not digressions from theme. Hence, the text is maybe not really wandering that much after all. For Knoop, digressing from the plot means creating a parallel narrative strategy. But the term "digression" entails the notion that the text strays from its main focus - and this choice, she argues, can only be made by including the level of theme. That's a valid point. Each reader (and the author) is free to decide for themselves which of the parallel narratives is the digression. If every one of the parallel narratives can be the digression, it is impossible to settle on a core plot. This is what makes it a "necessary oxymoron": Any interpretation will be able to find a digression, and might need this term to make its point; but what is a digression to one reader may be the core plot to another. So basically, the article says: On the level of plot, digression is but the creation of narrative parallels. It can only become digression (as in: wandering off, crossing boundaries) if it also digresses on the level of theme, and there we're in the realm of interpretation. So in a way, the article differentiates between narrative strategy and interpretive action, a difference often muddled in the concepts of digression (also in this book). Which is why I thought it was a wise (and brave) choice on the editor's part to put this article at the end of the book!
    Anyway, great review!
    Cheers, Paul

  2. Thank you too for your thoughtful response. Your reading of her essay is admirably clear. While I very much hold with Knoop that digression can be read as a 'parallel narrative strategy' -- and even concede that its designation can be subject to interpretation -- I consider her attempt to minimise its significance to be unhelpful. Her own use of the term is rather slippery. On the one hand, she rightly questions any assumptions about the paramount importance of plot, particularly when it comes to texts such as Kundera's, which rely, as she puts it, on a unity of theme rather than a unity of action. This is the position from which she is able to state: 'If everything in the text is used to create a unique ensemble, then none of its elements are digressive'(p. 118). And yet so easily does the plot-defined digression slip back into the discussion, such as on p. 123, where she declares that she 'would not call [L'Immortalité] digressive, as it is impossible to discern a single main plot...', after which she goes on to consider that one plot line might be considered a digression from another in a 'wider, heterogeneous plot'. In her argument, interpretation precedes any determination of digression. However, as we have just seen, it also seems possible to state categorically that there is no digression where the structure of a text makes such a finding too uncertain. Perhaps, leaving aside whether any textual feature might be defined as 'digression' per se, further discussion of the effect of this 'narrative strategy' in Kundera's novels might have allowed some means of passing beyond this difficulty. By concluding that the digressive features in Kundera's texts are only an 'illusion', she misses the opportunity to investigate what Susan Sontag might have called the particular 'erotics' of his texts.

    best wishes,